What is the “Spatial Turn”? A Beginner’s Look

As much as it goes against years of learning to hide insecurities in graduate school, I have to admit I am not entirely clear on what the “spatial turn” is.  Despite being in the middle of writing a dissertation that explicitly engages with ideas of place, I have far more questions about  “spatial analysis” (is that what I should call it?) in the humanities than I have answers.  In this series of posts, I hope to answer some of my questions and hopefully develop a resource along the way for people just getting into these questions themselves.

For me, the idea of “space” has been incredibly hard to grasp because it engages with so many disciplines.  The interdisciplinarity inherent in the “spatial turn” raises several practical questions:

  • What kind of sources do people use to investigate projects grounded in ideas of place and space?
  • What kind of research questions does spatial analysis allow you to ask and answer?
  • Once you have done the research, what do you do with it?
  • Do we have to leverage some sort of technology to make the research make sense?

Hoping to find the “best” way to begin answering these questions,  I found myself reading work of historians, geographers, literary scholars, among others.  The diversity of viewpoints makes it a very fun topic with which to engage, but also makes it daunting.  The thought of becoming conversant in an entirely new literature in order to answer some questions you have is a little terrifying.

Visualizing an Archive

Rather than spending a lot of time strategizing (procrastinating?) about the perfect way to start answering some of these questions, I chose instead to grab a book and figure out the strategy later.  Because I had been talking to Pablo and some friends of mine about GIS recently (and not really grasping what it is or what it does), I figured that a book that dealt with technology and the spatial turn was in order.  The book Google found, The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Indiana UP: 2010), seemed like a decent place to start.  (I was also excited to read it because it it has an essay by Ed Ayers which mentions the work of the Digital Scholarship Lab.  The director of the lab, Rob Nelson, first got me interested in Digital Humanities while he was working and finishing his dissertation at William & Mary.)

While discussing GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in the humanities, the editors of the book write in their introduction:

The power of GIS for the humanities lies in its ability to integrate information from a common location, regardless of format, and to visualize the results in combinations of transparent layers on a map of the geography shared by the data.  Internet mapping has made this concept widely recognized and accessible, but this use of GIS only hints at its potential for the humanities. (ix)

Despite not really knowing what GIS is or what it does, besides the fact that it refers to a category of software that allows for the spatial organization of information, I could see that this passage touches on one of my questions about spatial analysis – is this work possible without technology?  Regardless of the answer, it also made me think, “is spatial analysis in the humanities ultimately about visualizing an archive?”

In his essay “Turning toward Place, Space and Time,” Ed Ayers considers the ways in which visualizing an archive both spatially and temporally might yield exciting results for historians.  Instead of looking for causation, he and the Digital Scholarship Lab attempt to “interpret the consequences and resonances of events” (8)  While he gives two examples, the “cinematic maps” he mentions seem most accessible in terms of seeing “resonance.”

Ayers & DSL's Cinematic Maps: http://dsl.richmond.edu/voting/presvoting.html

These maps, which are videos of points plotted on a map representing things like votes cast for presidential candidates over time, create their own narratives–showing change over time as motion on a map–allowing for people to make complex connections between parts of an archive not normally joined (10).  They do not illustrate the consequences of small events, but attempt to show the “reverberations” of broad shifts across various communities, boundaries, and locations.  Ultimately, the spatial visualizing of sources allows us to make connections otherwise obscured and visualization leads us to discover different ways to craft narratives.  Ayers is careful to mention that “maps or timelines…do not speak for themselves” (12).  Rather, they are step towards “inventing new forms of interpretation” (12).

In the last page of his essay, and by pointing us to the small and large scale projects on the DSL site, Ayers gives us an answer to a question many of us have asked of spatial analysis in the humanities – I am often left asking, “so what?” after looking at these digital projects.  Now I have the beginnings of an answer.  Spatial analysis is not just about mapping, but it is also about trying to broaden the reach of humanities research.  Perhaps these maps are not an end (although they can certainly yield compelling arguments), but one step scholars need to take in order to advance their disciplines.

[featured image on slider: Camouflage class in New York University, LOC, Flickr Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179915522/ ]

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/